Why Humanity’s Future Is Not Lost in Space

Gregory Paul

Here we are, half a century after the first moon landing, and not much new has happened regarding humans in deep space. Yet with SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and talk of deep space tourism, moon bases, mining asteroids, and Mars colonization, it might look like Homo sapiens is about to become a space species.

Ain’t happening, folks. It never will be practical in terms of cost and safety.

What does work are airliners, one of which I happened to be flying in the day of the Apollo 11 landing. Nearly all airliners last a couple of decades, over which they make thousands of flights with quick turnarounds. You are far safer flying a given distance than driving it. And flying is cheap. Economy fare from Buffalo to Tokyo and back is just one or two thousand bucks. That’s because only a fifth of the takeoff weight of an airliner consists of fuel, allowing it to carry hundreds of passengers who split the modest fuel costs; at a few hundred gallons per person and a few bucks per gallon, that’s affordable.

The endless problems with people in space starts with just getting there, via what (due to the physics of the universe) will always be the only means of getting into low orbit: the space booster. Yes, there is prattle about space elevators, but they will never be feasible for numerous reasons, including fantastic cost (due in part to all the space launches needed to build one), the lack of a means to assemble such a vast structure, the lack of materials to resist the incredible tensile stresses, and on and on. Rocketing into orbit means going from ground speed to 18,000 mph in a few minutes. That demands burning massive amounts of fuel that make up 85 percent of the mass of a space rocket. That in turn limits the payload, such as people, to a wee fraction of the weight of the booster, so the cost per passenger for fuel alone is ridiculous. And it is hyper-dangerous. Because they are largely a load of fuel that is burned at fantastic rates that threaten to destroy the machine, boosters are essentially flying bombs, always on the edge of disaster—which is why they do, and always will, self-destruct at a horrific rate of about one in a hundred launches. No airline would last more than a week with a rate of loss like that. There is no way around this! Making space rockets into winged vehicles that take off horizontally does not solve the safety or fuel consumption problems. If anything, the wings add drag, weight, and cost.

Because space boosters must have such incredible performance, they are extremely expensive. And the forces of each launch beat the hell out of them, so even reusable boosters such as those being developed by SpaceX are projected to last only a hundred flights—if they don’t blow up. So, getting a given person into orbit will always cost millions, precluding all but the wealthy or those involved in some form of paid exploration or extraterrestrial business getting above the atmosphere. And anyone who goes into orbit will be doing so at a lethal risk factor that makes being a deep-sea fisherman—that “most dangerous job”—look safe. Newt Gingrich’s notions of orbiting resorts for the masses is sheer free-market fantasy.

Then matters get a lot worse. What few seem able to comprehend is that the galaxy we live in is a ruthless people killer. All of deep space is chock-full of cosmic rays that will in a few months fry the human brain into permanent dementia and pepper the body with cancers. Never forget, we evolved here on planet Earth, whose magnetic field protects us from said radiation. There is no practical way to shield people in space vehicles that must be lightly constructed. Living on the moon or Mars will require living underground. But watch out for moon and Mars dust; it’s pretty toxic stuff comparable to, say, asbestos.

We Homo sapiens evolved to live in the tropics. Therefore most folks still live at low latitudes. Progressing toward the poles, the population drops way off—to the degree that Antarctica has just a few winter researchers who dwell there at great governmental cost. Yet even the South Pole has something space—as atheist Bill Maher pointed out in one of his best New Rules rants—lacks. Air! Being in space means every moment being on the verge of death if something goes wrong with the damn oxygen supply. And every minute of every day, a spacefarer is living inside a space cocoon, whether it be ship, habitat, or suit. No human being would be able to walk outside for a breath of fresh air under a blue sky filled with nice fluffy clouds. Aside from the absolute physical risk, being in space is a recipe for psychological disaster.

Nor is there a major, viable business model for people in space. Anything done way up there will be vastly too expensive to make money by bringing it back to Earth, more so because that requires the dicey and dangerous proposition of flaming reentry. As for colonization to save the species, that is an escapist elitist fantasy in which somehow the relatively few folks who make it to Mars are somehow going to establish a viable population on a radiation-saturated airless desert planet that makes Tatooine look nice. Just how is the initial stage of the colony with maybe a dozen or two people supposed to work? What if people go insane? How will they be dealt with? What if one or more is murdered or raped? How will the investigation, arrest, imprisonment, and trial work? The remote colony would be perpetually vulnerable to political strife and autocracy. Even in the incredible event that the fantastic funds needed to conduct the hyper-risky effort to terraform the planet actually worked out, Mars would be a rump human habitat that would do little to save the species if our homeworld goes belly-up.

Space as the salutary future for humanity is barely more practical than the second coming of Christ, and efforts to make the first so divert attention from dealing with the one spaceship we already have—our planet. If we can’t make it here on earth, we can’t make it anywhere. If conscious minds do make it into space, it will not be in the form of big-brained primates. It will be artificial minds that don’t need oxygen, and that, because they are the spacecraft, can get to space cheaply and safely and be resistant to the radiation.

Maybe they will make it to the stars—if they find a reason to.

Gregory Paul

Gregory S. Paul is an independent researcher, analyst, and author. His latest book is The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs (Princeton University Press, 2010).

Here we are, half a century after the first moon landing, and not much new has happened regarding humans in deep space. Yet with SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and talk of deep space tourism, moon bases, mining asteroids, and Mars colonization, it might look like Homo sapiens is about to become a space species. …

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